Saturday, November 5, 2016

Times of hate, part 2

After analyzing the presidential elections for the joy of my weekend in Times of hate, part 1, I'm changing the topic to more personal but as unpleasant problems concerning the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS). For many people it's probably a familiar situation to have worked, or know someone who has worked in a company that is holding cooperation negotiations due to economic challenges. Our case, however, is slightly different as we do work that can affect the whole world – or that's what we think. 

Let me first briefly review what has happened in the past. I have written two other blog posts about the NSF's proposal to divest from the Arecibo Observatory (AO): The first one in June about the first public meeting about the EIS, where the five potential alternatives for the future of AO were discussed and what should be included in the EIS, and another one in July about the US congress hearing of the Subcommittee on Space and Subcommittee on Research and Technology. 

The DEIS is an almost 300-page package including six alternatives for the future of the observatory and the effects of each alternative on different environmental aspects but also socioeconomics (incl. tourism and education). The current alternatives are:
1) Collaboration with interested parties for continued science-focused operations (recommended by the NSF),
2) Collaboration with interested parties for transition to education-focused operations,
3) Mothballing of facilities,
4) Partial deconstruction and site restoration (towers, foundation and rim wall infrastructure safe-abandoned, everything else deconstructed)
5) Complete deconstruction and site restoration
6) No action (not a numbered alternative in DEIS)

The most ridiculous and stress-causing of these was the recommended alternative 1, which now suddenly includes deconstruction of 26 buildings as "obsolete", including almost all office space and the (S-band) radar power supply. Note that this does not include dismissal of the research staff, so it seems like they're proposing that we work on the street, the parking lot, or from home. Also it would end the collaboration with the currently only interested party that we are aware of, NASA, which already pays almost a third of the whole budget of the observatory.

The deconstruction of the office buildings is not explained in any way. As for the radar power supply the DEIS has a full page deeming the work of the planetary radar group useless:
"First, the probability of a specific PHO [potentially hazardous object] within the Observatory’s observable zone striking the Earth is extremely low. Second, even if a PHO within the Observatory’s observable zone presented a near-term threat of striking the Earth, significant capability challenges remain in addressing any threat to Earth from a PHO. -- objects of sizes 25, 50, and 140 meters have approximate intervals between Earth impacts of 200, 2,000, and 30,000 years, respectively. -- With regard to the second factor, there currently is no tested technology available that could address the threat of a PHO that presents a near-term threat of striking the Earth. In addition, even if such technology were available, there is no guarantee that a PHO that might impact Earth would intersect the Observatory’s observable zone early enough to enable preventative action to be taken. Weighing these factors and, importantly, the large interval between regional- and even local-scale events relative to the anticipated lifetime of the Observatory, a reduction or elimination of Observatory usage would have an overall negligible, adverse, long-term impact on public safety."

The DEIS does not state who is responsible for the section but it is certainly not in accordance with the views of the NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office. Instead of stating how many PHOs we actually observe each year, the document just says it's "extremely low" for a specific PHO. If I had written that in an essay as a student, there would have soon been a big red mark next to it. In reality we have observed 249 PHOs out of 1746 since the year 1998, about half of which have been observed during the last 5 years. Almost every week there's at least one PHO that we could observe.

The section also fails to mention the 325-meter asteroid Apophis that passes by Earth closer than one tenth of Earth-Moon distance in just 13 years time and will be hazardous for some satellites. Further, OSIRIS-REx mission maybe hadn't even happened without Arecibo's radar observations of the target asteroid, 500-meter Bennu, which also is a potential impactor late next century. And also, both NASA and ESA have missions during the next 10 years (AIDA and ARM), for which Arecibo's radar is critical. According to the logic of the section, why do we even look for new PHOs if we can't do anything about them? The same goes for optical astronomy just as well as radar. But of course these points wouldn't suit the means of NSF, so why mention them?

The document also included a bunch of other oddities that I won't go over here. What you may find more interesting is how we confronted the division director James Ulvestad in the agency night of the Division for Planetary Science conference on Oct 17. He was the main topic of the other post that I mentioned in the beginning for giving almost as misleading statements of the planetary radar as the above-mentioned section of DEIS – in an official testimony to US congress. To my understanding, after the hearing NASA submitted an official correcting statement concerning his testimony.

The case of AO was discussed among the future plans of NSF. The divestment plans were reasoned by necessary transition of the funding from the aging facilities to newer ones (I really hope they don't use age discrimination as reasoning for individual scientists as well). Also the other single-dish radio telescope, the world's largest fully steerable antenna of Green Bank Observatory was on the list of facilities facing divestment. According to Ulvestad, "all their facilities are unique" but they just have to make these hard decisions... His definition of uniqueness reminds me of the quote from Animal Farm: "All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others".

After the official part I stepped up to discuss the AO funding personally with Ulvestad. A few other Team Radar members joined us. We began by asking about the hearing: Why would he give such a misleading statement? After trying to deny any incorrectness in the statement he appealed to the pressure of being under interrogation of a "pro-Arecibo" congressman. We asked why he didn't think planetary defense is important. He replied that surveys are more important and Arecibo couldn't be used as a survey telescope. However, we reminded that to get the position accurately and not have the asteroid lost as soon as it's found, as sometimes happens, we can do it in one hour while the optical methods will require weeks for the same accuracy. We also got to hear that NSF has to serve their communities and planetary community is very small in comparison to other astronomical communities. I always thought the purpose of NSF is to serve US taxpayers, not astronomical communities. When asked if he knew any other research area of astronomy that has a congressional mandate, he could not reply. In addition he defended the divestment plans by saying that the optical astronomy community "is screaming" at him for not funding more of their telescopes. So he's distributing NSF money based on who screams the loudest? That's interesting...

The budget plan shows the millions that NSF will save by divesting from Arecibo (AR), National solar observatory (NSO), and Green Bank (GBO+VLBA).

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Any opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC), the Universities Space Reseach Association (USRA), SRI International, Universidad Metropolitana (UMET), or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and definitely not those of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

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